This is where the emigrating shit gets real: when you pack your kids off to a strange school in a strange country, where along with the unfamiliar faces so much else is foreign too: the accents, the vocabulary, the routines, the things that everyone else seems to know by osmosis but no one quite explains.
Number Two Son comes home mildly traumatised and fully indignant. There’s no morning tea – just a morning break with no food provided, and no food allowed from home. Ball games in the concrete courtyard are strictly rostered: Year 5s are only allowed to play football on Thursdays, and only with a tennis ball! NTS’s tennis ball-footie skills, never before tested, turn out to be inferior to those of the rest of the bellowing tribe, who mock and sledge him.
In the dinner queue he asks for the vegetarian option – the greenish lasagne looks better than the greyish beef – and is sharply declined. He doesn’t understand the impatient questions of the dinner ladies, and ends up with loathed gravy over everything. One lunchtime he’s in the loo when the sign is held up signalling it’s his class’s turn for school dinner, and it’s not till the end of lunch that he realises he’s about to miss it. He’s put on the hall stage to eat because there’s no space at the tables, and has to balance his sweet-and-sour turkey on his lap, feeling conspicuously humiliated. Another day, trying to dodge the attentions of an awkward but enamoured female classmate, his jelly slides off his tray and lands bowl side up on the gritty floor. And he’d been so looking forward to it.
For a nine-year-old, these tiny torments assume the proportions of full-blown life crises. Bedtimes involve lengthy debriefs, mostly despairing rather than tearful. Negotiating the law-of-the-concrete-jungle in the playground, NTS is filled with nostalgic longing for the regulated order of the Westmere playground. “Tufnell Park School needs to do a lot better,” he tells me, banging his scowling face into the pillow. “Here if people are mean to you or hurt you or call you gay the teachers just tell the bullies off. But nothing happens! They don’t even go to Care Centre!” Ms Marino, how we miss you.
There are silver linings: the fruit sponge with custard is apparently delicious, and the butter chicken’s all right too. At the peak of World Cup fever, NTS turns out to be the school’s star rugby player, the only kid who knows how to throw a spiral pass. And with no mates to clown around for, our reluctant-student son begins to shine in the classroom. The last week of half-term he is honoured with a certificate for “100% focus and determination and being a role model for our class”. Our son? Hapless and I choke up with pride. Our brave, anxious, needy boy, halfway round the world and surrounded by delinquents who mock his accent, stepping up and giving it his all! We take him out to dinner and lay on the positive reinforcement with a trowel.
Firstborn, meanwhile, takes to his secondary modern like something amphibious to water. Student of the Week in his first week, top of the incentives points chart, top of maths, science, geography, RE. Class rep, and – bizarrely for a kid whose freestyle has always resembled slow-motion drowning – the best swimmer. (“There’s only two kids in my class who aren’t fat. Most of them can’t even swim a width.”) He learns how to tie a half-Windsor with the regulation six stripes showing under his recycled-from-drink-bottles polyester blazer. He enjoys his free after-school forensic science, music production and fitness clubs (blood spatter! funky basslines! calorie counting!).
He pores over his fortnightly timetable, his homework planner, the rule handbook, recounting with shining-eyed fascination the intricacies of the demerit and detention systems. This is a school that has dramatically turned itself around in the last few years – there really is a memorial garden for past stabbed students – and it seems to have done so Giuliani-style: with zero tolerance for infringements of uniform, lateness, homework completion, courtesy. Firstborn pulls up his regulation synthetic socks and manages to remember his pencil case and planner every day, his PE kit on the required three, and only once ends up at school with no lunch money on his barcoded photo-ID card.
He spends break times in the music room jamming with older kids, who admire his Stairway to Heaven solo and make vague promises about inviting him to join their bands. He doesn’t exactly have friends, but apart from the Turkish-Scottish kid who briefly torments him after an accidental-dobbing incident, no one gives him a hard time either. Unlike our pack-animal youngest, Firstborn is happy as a loner, eating sometimes by himself, sloping through the corridors in an aura of long-haired guitar-toting Antipodean mystique.
Others notice it too. One grey afternoon on Oxford Street he is approached by a talent scout who wants to cast him in a fashion video for a high-street retailer. I check that the woman realises he’s not a girl – he’s always being told by men he’s in the wrong toilet, even when he’s peeing into a urinal – and give her my card and forget about it. But a couple of weeks later, after skeptically attending a two-minute screen test in a shabby little upstairs studio in Soho, we’re told he’s been cast as the only child in the film. Weighing up his conflicting desires for a 100% school attendance record and £200 in cold hard cash, Firstborn eventually decides he’s keen, and I can’t think of a good reason why not.
Islington Council begins to supply a few, though, when they make the talent agency – and by extension, us – jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops. As residents of the borough, we’re required to obtain a licence under The Children (Performances and Activities) (England) Regulations 2014: a process involving paperwork, passports, photographs, written permission from the school principal and a very tight deadline. But hoops duly jumped through, our firstborn son is to be whisked to some bucolic location in Sussex next week for his first one-day modelling shoot. Bizarro. The things that happen in big cities…
With the change of seasons, the boys’ walk home from school is already a twilight adventure, though the shortest day is still weeks away. Summer ended as precisely as the holidays at the end of August, the ratio of clear days to grey settling immediately into its customary 1:6. But in our leafy suburb the shedding trees turn even the grey days soft and golden, bright leaves drifting past the windows as silent and continuous as snow. Great flame-coloured drifts of leaves line the footpaths, gorgeous-looking but mostly too soggy to crunch through, and anyway requiring caution, the rotten underlayer sometimes treacherously slippery and often concealing the ubiquitous dogshit.
In keeping with the change in the air, Hapless’s long career game finally pays off, and after politely telling The Economist where to stick its lousy day rate, he starts to count the days until the start of his new contract. It’s what he’s been hanging out for: a big publishing house in nice offices a walkable distance down the road in King’s Cross. Just a few months to begin with, but who knows, one contract has a way of leading to another…
And me? Next instalment, it’s all about me.